Could media framing bridge the partisan divide on gun violence?

April 23, 2021

Mainstream media coverage of mass shootings could bring the left and right closer together on the issue. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Conservatives put a higher priority on gun violence after reading media reports on shootings that focus on the individual incidents themselves rather than placing them in a broader context, substantially reducing the divide between liberals and conservatives over the importance of the issue.

According to research published April 7 in Mass Communication and Society, U.S. conservatives viewed gun violence as a more important issue after reading "episodic" coverage of shootings from mainstream outlets — though they pushed it down the priority list after exposure to similar coverage from like-minded partisan media sources.

The study, which used an advanced machine-learning model to analyze 25 news outlets' coverage of gun violence, shows how the media shapes political priorities in ways that can unite or divide ideological opponents.

That agenda-setting power can have serious consequences for public policy, corresponding author Lei Guo told The Academic Times.

"Media agenda-setting is important because once the public agrees on the importance of [certain] issues, then the government can dedicate its resources to solve those issues," she said. "But if the political climate is divided and people have very different ideas about which issues to tackle, then that makes it hard to solve" any of them.

Guo collaborated with Kate Mays, Yiyan Zhang, Derry Wijaya and Margrit Betke on the paper, bringing together a cross-disciplinary team of Boston University researchers who used computational methods to discern how media impacts public perceptions. Pairing a content analysis of news articles from 2018 with a two-wave panel survey conducted during the same year, the study examined media framing effects at the individual level. 

The research drew on agenda-setting theory, which argues that news media coverage can determine which problems the public perceives as most important. While opinion can splinter when different outlets cover different issues, the researchers noted, their study explored a different possibility — that highlighting different features of the same issue can also ultimately set different agendas in the minds of disparate audiences.

By emphasizing distinct aspects of the same issues, it could be that competing news outlets are changing how their respective audiences prioritize societal problems, a process that is referred to as the compelling arguments hypothesis. Media frames organize certain aspects of an issue into a package that potentially impacts how people perceive its importance, meaning they could play an important part in shaping public opinion across a range of policy issues.

"Exposure to different media outlets may result in a divided public with different issue priorities, and ultimately divergent interests and goals," the researchers wrote. 

They tested their hypothesis using coverage of gun violence as a case study, deploying a deep learning algorithm to analyze 4,823 gun violence-related news headlines from 25 outlets for relevance and whether they framed subjects episodically or thematically.

The researchers also tracked how 1,039 U.S.-based respondents perceived the importance of gun violence through two survey waves — first in October 2018, then in a period from mid-November to early December 2018. Two high-profile mass shootings occurred between the waves, they noted, making for a "remarkable natural experiment."

Participants were asked to evaluate the importance of gun violence on a seven-point scale, allowing Guo and her co-authors to estimate the impact of media exposure on the change in perceived issue importance between the two waves.

The researchers found evidence of a baseline agenda-setting effect: The more survey participants were exposed to coverage of gun violence in the mainstream media, the more they believed the issue was important.

But the link between mainstream media exposure and perceived issue importance was moderated by political orientation, according to the researchers. Regression analyses revealed that conservatives, as compared to liberal and politically neutral respondents, were more likely to elevate gun violence on their list of pressing issues after exposure to mainstream media coverage of gun-related incidents.

Among conservatives, exposure to mainstream episodic coverage was associated with higher perceived issue importance at a correlation of .602; among liberals, the correlation was a statistically insignificant -.106, likely reflecting that individuals on the left already tend to perceive gun violence as an urgent problem.

Gun violence coverage focused on political themes rather than individual stories wasn't found to influence whether people viewed the issue as salient. The researchers noted that could be because many Americans know — and are potentially tired of — the ongoing debates over gun policy.

By contrast, Guo said, episodically framed news stories may be more emotionally engaging, influencing an audience's views on the urgency of gun violence more than a macrolevel thematic argument might.

Thematically framed articles "are trying to make a point, and trying to argue," she said. "But episodically framed articles, because they focus on a specific story or episode in an individual's life, have a stronger emotional appeal."

The episodic framing itself didn't prompt conservatives to prioritize gun violence across the board, however. The researchers discovered that the more they were exposed to episodically framed accounts from like-minded partisan sources, the less likely they were to view gun violence as important.

Exposure to episodically framed coverage from such sources was correlated at -.210 with perceived issue importance among conservatives, the researchers found, adding that neither episodically nor thematically framed stories prompted liberals or conservatives to move gun violence up the priority list.

The "agenda-deflating" effect could be because like-minded media is more likely to serve its audience information they're already familiar with, the researchers noted. By contrast, mainstream media coverage of gun violence may introduce information conservatives hadn't considered before, leading them to deliberate on the topic more consciously.

It could also be that conservative outlets view gun violence as a "liberal-owned" issue, the researchers added, and accordingly frame it as low-priority.

The study's results show that media agenda-setting isn't a simple function of partisan messaging to partisan audiences — it also depends on the type of coverage those audiences are exposed to. Guo said the findings should remind readers that even savvy news consumers routinely have their views shaped by this confluence of factors.

Readers "may think that they're critical thinkers, but we still prove that exposure to different media messages will have an impact on their opinions," she said.

The article "What makes gun violence a (less) prominent issue? A computational analysis of compelling arguments and selective agenda setting," published April 7 in Mass Communication and Society, was authored by Lei Guo, Kate Mays, Yiyan Zhang, Derry Wijaya and Margrit Betke, Boston University.

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